At the beginning of the 20th century the Russian industrial employee worked on average an 11 hour day (10 hours on Saturday). Conditions in the factories were extremely harsh and little concern was shown for the workers' health and safety. Attempts by workers to form trade unions were resisted by the factory owners and in 1903, a priest, Father Georgi Gapon, formed the Assembly of Russian Workers. Within a year it had over 9,000 members.
1904 was a particularly bad year for Russian workers. Prices of essential goods rose so quickly that real wages declined by 20 per cent. When four members of the Assembly of Russian Workers were dismissed at the Putilov Iron Works, Gapon called for industrial action. Over the next few days over 110,000 workers in St. Petersburg went out on strike.
In an attempt to settle the dispute, Georgi Gapon decided to make a personal appeal to Nicholas II. He drew up a petition outlining the workers' sufferings and demands. This included calling for a reduction in the working day to eight hours, an increase in wages, an improvement in working conditions and an end to the Russo-Japanese War.
When the procession of workers reached the Winter Palace in St Petersburg it was attacked by the police and the Cossacks. Over 100 workers were killed and some 300 wounded. The incident, known as Bloody Sunday, started a series of events that became known as the 1905 Revolution. Strikes took place all over the country and the universities closed down when the whole student body complained about the lack of civil liberties by staging a walkout. Lawyers, doctor, engineers, and other middle-class workers established the Union of Unions and demanded a constituent assembly.
In June, 1905, sailors on the Potemkin battleship, protested against the serving of rotten meat. The captain ordered that the ringleaders to be shot. The firing-squad refused to carry out the order and joined with the rest of the crew in throwing the officers overboard. The Potemkin Mutiny spread to other units in the army and navy. Now industrial workers all over Russia went on strike and in October, 1905, the action of railwaymen paralyzed the whole Russian railway network.
Sergi Witte, the new Chief Minister, advised Nicholas II to make concessions. He eventually agreed and published the October Manifesto. This granted freedom of conscience, speech, meeting and association. He also promised that in future people would not be imprisoned without trial. Finally he announced that no law would become operative without the approval of a new organization called the Duma.
Leon Trotsky now decided to return to Russia and joined the St. Petersburg Soviet and was eventually elected chairman. He wrote a regular column for the Menshevik newspaper, Nachalo (The Beginning) and wrote editorials for Izvestia (The News), the official Soviet organ. "I wrote articles as well as numerous appeals, manifestos and resolutions. The fifty-two days of the existence of the first Soviet were filled to the brim with work... How we managed to live in this whirlpool is still not clear, even to me... We not only whirled in the vortex, but we helped to create it. Everything was done in a hurry, but, after all, not so badly, and some things were even done very well." Over the next few weeks over 50 of these soviets were formed all over Russia.
Dmitrii Sverchkov wrote: "The intellectual leader of the Soviet was Leon Trotsky. The president of the Soviet, Nosar-Khrustalyov, was really a screen, for he was never able to solve a single question of principle himself. A man with an exaggerated vanity which was almost an illness with him, he came to hate Trotsky because of the very necessity of referring to him for advice and direction." Anatoli Lunacharsky agreed: "Trotsky's popularity among the St. Petersburg proletariat was very great by the time of his arrest, and this was increased still further by his strikingly effective and heroic behaviour at the trial. I must say that Trotsky, of all the Social Democratic leaders of 1905-06, undoubtedly showed himself, in spite of his youth, the best prepared; and he was the least stamped by the narrow emigre outlook which handicapped even Lenin. He realized better than the others what a state struggle is. He came out of the revolution, too, with the greatest gains in popularity; neither Lenin nor Martov gained much. Plekhanov lost a great deal because of the semi-liberal tendencies which he revealed. But from then on Trotsky was in the front rank."
On 2nd December 1905, Trotsky published its "financial manifesto, which proclaimed that the financial bankruptcy of Tsarism was inevitable, and issued a categorical warning that the debts incurred by the Romanovs would not be recognized by the victorious nation". The manifesto pointed out: "The autocracy never enjoyed the confidence of the people and was never granted any authority by the people. We have therefore decided not to allow the repayment of such loans as have been made by the Tsarist government when openly engaged in a war with the entire people."
With the failings of the Duma, the Soviets were seen as the legitimate workers' government. Trotsky and the Soviets challenged the power of Tsar Nicholas II and attempted to enforce promises made in the October Manifesto such as the freedom of the press, assembly and association. On 3rd December, 1905, the St. Petersburg Soviet was crushed and Trotsky was arrested and imprisoned.
The first meeting of the Duma took place in May 1906. Several changes in the composition of the Duma had been changed since the publication of the October Manifesto. Tsar Nicholas II had also created a State Council, an upper chamber, of which he would nominate half its members. He also retained for himself the right to declare war, to control the Orthodox Church and to dissolve the Duma. The Tsar also had the power to appoint and dismiss ministers. At their first meeting, members of the Duma put forward a series of demands including the release of political prisoners, trade union rights and land reform. Nicholas II rejected all these proposals and dissolved the Duma.
In April, 1906, Nicholas II forced Sergi Witte to resign and replaced him with the more conservative Peter Stolypin. Stolypin attempt to provide a balance between the introduction of much needed land reforms and the suppression of the radicals. The next Duma convened in February, 1907. This time it lasted three months before the Tsar closed it down.
The people believe in thee. They have made up their minds to gather at the Winter Palace tomorrow at 2 p.m. to lay their needs before thee. Do not fear anything. Stand tomorrow before the party and accept our humblest petition. I, the representative of the workingmen, and my comrades, guarantee the inviolability of thy person.
Since yesterday all the factories and workshops in St. Petersburg have been on strike. Troops have been brought in from the surroundings to strengthen the garrison. The workers have conducted themselves calmly hitherto. Their number is estimated at 120,000. At the head of the workers' union some priest - socialist Gapon. Mirsky came in the evening with a report of the measures taken.
We workers, our children, our wives and our old, helpless parents have come, Lord, to seek truth and protection from you. We are impoverished and oppressed, unbearable work is imposed on us, we are despised and not recognized as human beings. We are treated as slaves, who must bear their fate and be silent. We have suffered terrible things, but we are pressed ever deeper into the abyss of poverty, ignorance and lack of rights.
(1) An 8-hour day and freedom to organize trade unions.
(2) Improved working conditions, free medical aid, higher wages for women workers.
(3) Elections to be held for a constituent assembly by universal, equal and secret suffrage.
(4) Freedom of speech, press, association and religion.
(5) An end to the war with Japan.
The procession moved in a compact mass. In front of me were my two bodyguards and a yellow fellow with dark eyes from whose face his hard labouring life had not wiped away the light of youthful gaiety. On the flanks of the crowd ran the children. Some of the women insisted on walking in the first rows, in order, as they said, to protect me with their bodies, and force had to be used to remove them.
Suddenly the company of Cossacks galloped rapidly towards us with drawn swords. So, then, it was to be a massacre after all! There was no time for consideration, for making plans, or giving orders. A cry of alarm arose as the Cossacks came down upon us. Our front ranks broke before them, opening to right and left, and down the lane the soldiers drove their horses, striking on both sides. I saw the swords lifted and falling, the men, women and children dropping to the earth like logs of wood, while moans, curses and shouts filled the air.
Again we started forward, with solemn resolution and rising rage in our hearts. The Cossacks turned their horses and began to cut their way through the crowd from the rear. They passed through the whole column and galloped back towards the Narva Gate, where - the infantry having opened their ranks and let them through - they again formed lines.
We were not more than thirty yards from the soldiers, being separated from them only by the bridge over the Tarakanovskii Canal, which here masks the border of the city, when suddenly, without any warning and without a moment's delay, was heard the dry crack of many rifle-shots. Vasiliev, with whom I was walking hand in hand, suddenly left hold of my arm and sank upon the snow. One of the workmen who carried the banners fell also. Immediately one of the two police officers shouted out "What are you doing? How dare you fire upon the portrait of the Tsar?"
An old man named Lavrentiev, who was carrying the Tsar's portrait, had been one of the first victims. Another old man caught the portrait as it fell from his hands and carried it till he too was killed by the next volley. With his last gasp the old man said "I may die, but I will see the Tsar".
Both the blacksmiths who had guarded me were killed, as well as all these who were carrying the ikons and banners; and all these emblems now lay scattered on the snow. The soldiers were actually shooting into the courtyards at the adjoining houses, where the crowd tried to find refuge and, as I learned afterwards, bullets even struck persons inside, through the windows.
At last the firing ceased. I stood up with a few others who remained uninjured and looked down at the bodies that lay prostrate around me. Horror crept into my heart. The thought flashed through my mind, And this is the work of our Little Father, the Tsar". Perhaps the anger saved me, for now I knew in very truth that a new chapter was opened in the book of history of our people.
A painful day. There have been serious disorders in St. Petersburg because workmen wanted to come up to the Winter Palace. Troops had to open fire in several places in the city; there were many killed and wounded. God, how painful and sad.
Gapon is a remarkable character. He seems to have believed sincerely in the possibility of reconciling the true interests of the workers with the authorities' good intentions. At any rate it was he who organized the movement to petition the Tsar which ended with the massacre of 22 January, 1905.
The petition of the workers of St. Petersburg on Nicholas II, drafted by Gapon and endorsed by tens of thousands of proletarians, was both a lugubrious entreaty and a daring set of demands. It asked for an eight-hour day, recognition of workers' rights and a Constitution (including the responsibility of ministers to the people, separation of Church and State, and democratic liberties). From all quarters of the capital the petitioners, carrying icons and singing hymns, set off marching through the snow, late on a January morning, to see their "little father, the Tsar".
At every cross-road armed ambushes were waiting for them. The soldiers machine-gunned them down and the Cossacks charged them. "Treat them like rebels" had been the Emperor's command. The outcome of the day was several hundred dead and as many wounded. This stupid and criminal repression detonated the first Russian revolution.